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Botched Reporting Doesn’t Overturn Rolling Stone’s UVA Rape Article

Ashley Yang |
December 7, 2014 | 9:22 p.m. PST




Last month, Rolling Stone magazine published a story titled “A Rape on Campus” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, which detailed pervasive cover-ups and impunity of sexual assault at the University of Virginia through the narrative of “Jackie,” a freshman who was brutally gang-raped at a fraternity house and met by a dearth of administrative support when she sought justice through the university.   

Yesterday, the managing editor of Rolling Stone released a statement that amounts to a retraction of “Jackie’s” story after news outlets like the Washington Post and Slate found major lapses in Erdely’s reporting during a second, more intensive round of fact-checking:

“In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account.”

The most widely-held objection to the story were the professional and ethical implications of Erdely’s choice, and Rolling Stone’s approval, of using “Jackie’s” gang-rape as the lede without making a vigorous effort to contact her alleged assailants and to verify the minutiae of her account (i.e. whether there was a party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity on the night in question and whether a student matching the description of “Jackie’s” main assailant “Drew” actually worked at the aquatic center and was a member of Phi Kappa Psi, all of which have been called into question). 

Rolling Stone failed to do its due diligence as a publication. Erdely botched the reporting as an investigative journalist. But only with regard to “Jackie’s” own narrative - and not the institutional indifference exhibited by UVA’s administration to combatting campus rape. That experience, which was lived by not just “Jackie,” but multiple other women who came forward, is the main focus of the article - a fact which we should care to remember before vilifying all 9,000 of Erdely’s words.

Reading “A Rape on Campus” for the first time, I thought that “Jackie’s” story was too good to be true - at least in the way Erdely had written it:  

“A chatty, straight-A achiever from a rural Virginia town…Jackie had flung herself into campus life, attending events, joining clubs, making friends and, now, being asked on an actual date…

Jackie had taken three hours getting ready, straightening her long, dark, wavy hair. She'd congratulated herself on her choice of a tasteful red dress with a high neckline. Now, climbing the frat-house stairs with Drew, Jackie felt excited…The room was pitch-black inside. Jackie blindly turned toward Drew, uttering his name. At that same moment…she detected movement in the room – and felt someone bump into her. Jackie began to scream.”

These first paragraphs read like the beginning minutes of a Lifetime movie. The story was so straightforward, and the protagonist so above reproach that it eliminated any room for the public to debate about “what really happened,” as is often the norm with reported instances of sexual assault. By Erdely’s description, Jackie was a Virgin Mary. No one, not even rape apologists who make careers out of disproving that sexual violence is a systemic problem, could reasonably say that she had been “asking for it,” or that the rape was a false accusation after “a bad experience.” But a “too-perfect” story naturally attracts skepticism, and in this case the skeptics were right. Erdely’s poor professional choices have caused “Jackie,” a very real woman who experienced a very real trauma, to be called a liar in national media. The damage it has done to a movement that has in the past year seen so much progress, is already palpable after a day. 

As a female student at an elite university not unlike UVA and a journalist who regularly writes on campus sexual assault, I understand the desire to make people listen when I publish a new article on a new study or a harrowing account of sexual violence, because I know how easily it could make its way into the pile of “yet another story concocted to blow ‘regrettable sex’ out of proportion.” I understand that even though I have an ethical responsibility to state facts and act as a conductor and not a creator of information, what readers ultimately crave is a story they can relate to on a human level. That is the kind of writing that affects people enough to question the status quo and desire change. Erdely believed (and rightly so, given the overwhelming response her article received) that the most effective way to do that was to put the spotlight on “Jackie’s” personal account. 

But with that, she placed the burden of proving the systemic failure of UVA’s sexual assault policies squarely on the shoulder of one survivor - whose character is now under so much public scrutiny that she fears being “outed” on campus. In addition, the “Lifetime-esque” manner in which “Jackie’s” story was told plays to the bias that only victims whose characters are above reproach can effectively be the face of a national conversation about sexual assault, or that only their stories deserve recognition on a 9,000 word platform in a national magazine.

Erdely, like all investigative journalists covering campus sexual assault today, have an added responsibility to all survivors, past and future, to ensure that their reporting will hold up under the most intense scrutiny. That responsibility is an unfair burden - but at a time when the myth that women lie about rape is still so widely held, it is one that is non-negotiable. 

Journalists who cover sexual assault strengthen survivors with a valuable voice - but to do that, they must take the rule “trust, but verify” to the letter. They need to be 110 percent sure that every little detail is in alignment, and to convince the survivor (even at the risk of intense discomfort) to identify the perpetrators and make every effort to seek out other parties who may have additional information. 

By respecting “Jackie’s” wishes that she not contact the alleged assailants, Erdely was being a decent human being - one who believes the victim, as allies of rape survivors are always taught to do.  But most “decent human beings” don’t have the added responsibility to tell the victim’s story to the whole world and to protect that story when so much of that world has a vested interest in disproving it.  Erdely didn’t just fail rape survivors at large; by not rising up to the demands of her profession to seek balanced reporting, she specifically failed Jackie. 

The “UVA rape scandal” was not, in fact, a hoax. Erdely’s investigative journey uncovered accurate, verifiable facts about how UVA handles sexual assault: she was repeatedly stonewalled by an evasive administration, in which Dean Nicole Eramo, head of UVA’s Sexual Misconduct Board, failed to provide productive guidance to traumatized students who came to her seeking justice. UVA’s trustees also were not fazed by the Title IX compliance review they were subject to - one which is “neither routine nor standard.”

“UVA furnished Rolling Stone with some of its most recent tally: In the last academic year, 38 students went to Eramo about a sexual assault, up from about 20 students three years ago. However, of those 38, only nine resulted in "complaints;" the other 29 students evaporated. Of those nine complaints, four resulted in Sexual Misconduct Board hearings.”

That since 1998, no one has been expelled from UVA for sexual assault, assailants even being found responsible by the flawed adjudication process is a scandal in itself. No assertions about politically driven narrativesconfirmation bias about fraternities, privileged college kids who party and rape culture can change that - not even ones raised from Erdely’s botched reporting.


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